While football season may be a ways off, SEC teams have hit the field for spring practice. Each team feels rejuvenated entering spring, but everyone has questions surrounding their team this time of year, some more than others. I took a stab at ranking each team in the conference heading into spring practice.
1) Alabama Crimson Tide
After losing to Clemson in the National Championship Game, the Crimson Tide enter the offseason with something to prove. Alabama loses All-American talents Jonathan Allen and Reuben Foster to the NFL and while replacing the two’s production won’t be easy, head coach Nick Saban will plug in the next four- or five-star prospect and have the defense rolling. The running back group in Tuscaloosa is as loaded as we’ve seen it and that’s really saying something considering the guys Alabama has churned out. Damien Harris returns as the Tide’s leading rusher followed by Bo Scarbrough, Josh Jacobs and B.J. Emmons, three guys that could start at just about any other school in the country. As if that wasn’t enough, the No. 1 overall recruit in the country, Najee Harris, is now on campus. Although quarterback Jalen Hurts had a fantastic freshman campaign, he’ll need to improve in the passing game to take the next step.
2) Georgia Bulldogs
Georgia has replaced Tennessee as the SEC team leading the hype train this summer. After starting as a true freshman a season ago, quarterback Jacob Eason possesses all the tools to have a breakout sophomore campaign. Behind Eason stands one the best running back duos in the SEC and possibly the country in Nick Chubb and Sony Michel. The Bulldogs will need to see improvement on the offensive line and at wide receiver to be a well-balanced offense. On defense, Lorenzo Carter and Davin Bellamy lead the way at linebacker while Dominick Sanders holds things down in the secondary. Georgia has talent across the defensive line, but it needs somebody to step up and take the lead.
3) Auburn Tigers
The last time an Auburn quarterback was hyped up, it didn’t turn out too well for the Tigers. Things will be different in 2017, though, because Baylor transfer Jarrett Stidham is the real deal. Behind a solid offensive line and a running back group headlined by Kerryon Johnson and Kamryn Pettway, the Tigers have the tools on offense to be explosive. The defense will have to replace a tremendous amount of production up front from NFL-bound Carl Lawson and Montravius Adams. The likes of Byron Cowart, Marlon Davidson and Derrick Brown have the talent to do just that.
4) LSU Tigers
Entering the first full season under Ed Orgeron, the Tigers are surrounded by questions. Yet again, LSU has a quarterback battle on their hands. Danny Etling is the favorite to win the job, but incoming freshman Myles Brennan has the talent to step right in and take the job away. Regardless of the starter, new offensive coordinator Matt Canada’s offense will revolve around All-SEC running back Derrius Guice, who some believe could be better than Leonard Fournette when it’s all said and done. While the offense looks to replace the production of Fournette, Malachi Dupre and Travin Dural, the defense will lead the way for LSU in 2017. Star pass rusher Arden Key is a nightmare for opposing coaches, but is not practicing this spring for personal reasons. If Key can get those issues sorted out, he’ll lead an LSU defense with a ton of talent at each level.
5) Tennessee Volunteers
No team enters the 2017 season with more questions surrounding the program than Tennessee. Head coach Butch Jones holds the tough task of replacing Josh Dobbs, Derek Barnett, Alvin Kamara and Josh Malone. At quarterback, Jarrett Guarantano and Quinten Dormady are neck-and-neck in the battle to be the starter. Both have big arms and NFL talent, but Jones will need to pick the guy that the team responds best to. With an experienced offensive line returning, Tennessee needs young players to step up at running back and wide receiver in order to provide some depth behind big talents in John Kelly and Jauan Jennings. On the other side of the ball, the defensive line is the Vols’ biggest concern. With the departure of Barnett and Corey Vereen, Tennessee needs Shy Tuttle, Darrell Taylor, Johnathan Kongbo and Kahlil McKenzie to step up and play a bigger role. Todd Kelly Jr. and Micah Abernathy headline a revamped secondary, while Darrin Kirkland Jr. looks to lead the defense from his middle linebacker position.
6) Florida Gators
Yet again, the Gators are without a quarterback as a new season begins. With one of the best receivers in the SEC lined up out wide in Antonio Callaway, it’s critical for the offense that one of Feleipe Franks or Kyle Trask steps up as the passer or the offense will look the same as it did last year. That is, an offense stuck in neutral due to subpar quarterback play despite having talent at receiver, tight end and running back. On defense, nobody replaces more than the Gators. Florida has plenty of raw talent on the defensive side of the ball, but very little of it is proven. Regardless of the amount of talent, it’s hard to move on without skipping a beat when you have to replace the likes of Caleb Brantley, Joey Ivie, Bryan Cox, Alex Anzalone, Jarrad Davis, Marcus Maye, Quincy Wilson and Jalen Tabor.
7) Kentucky Wildcats
The Wildcats are the dark horse in the SEC East entering the 2017 season. Yes, we are still talking about football. Led by a strong offensive line and running back Benjamin Snell Jr., who rushed for 1,091 yards and 13 touchdowns as a true freshman, Kentucky has the talent to challenge what should be a weak group of SEC East defenses. Tight end C.J. Conrad will serve as a weapon for whoever is named starting quarterback. Both Drew Barker and Stephen Johnson are above average SEC starters at quarterback, but Mark Stoops’ main priority this spring should be finding the right guy for the job as the ‘Cats head into summer workouts. The problem for Kentucky during the Stoops era has been the inconsistency of the defense. While the offense will be strong, the defense cannot have another year where they’re in the bottom of the SEC if Kentucky want to truly be a factor in the east.
8) Arkansas Razorbacks
New defensive coordinator Paul Rhoads is in the process of implementing a 3-4 defense in Fayetteville. As the Hogs transition from a 4-2-5 defense to a 3-4 defense where they’ll add two more linebackers, Rhoades must also find somebody who can make an impact at safety. Teams often have a hard time transitioning to a 3-4, but Arkansas has the bodies to do it effectively. On offense, Austin Allen returns as the starting quarterback. Alongside Allen in the backfield returns Rawleigh Williams, the SEC’s fourth-leading rusher from a season ago. With four of five starters on the offensive line returning, the questions on offense surround the wide receiver position. Aside from Jared Cornelius, the group has a total of two career catches between them.
9) Vanderbilt Commodores
While the offense need to be more consistent, the group returns a lot of starters and talent. Kyle Shurmur possesses a lot of talent as the starting quarterback for the Commodores, but consistency has plagued him early on in his career. The running back combination of Ralph Webb – the school’s all-time leading rusher – and Khari Blasingame was one of the most effective duos in the country last season, combining to rush for 1,732 yards and 23 touchdowns. Vanderbilt must replace the production of Zach Cunningham and Torren McGaster, but Derek Mason has recruited and coached well on the defensive side of the ball: the Commodores’ defense has finished in the top half of the SEC twice during Mason’s three-year tenure.
10) Mississippi State Bulldogs
After throwing for over 2,000 yards, rushing for over 1,000 yards and tallying 37 touchdowns, Nick Fitzgerald enters the season as the SEC’s best returning quarterback. The problem in Starkville entering spring practice is that Fitzgerald doesn’t have much help surrounding him, on either side of the ball. Offensively, the Bulldogs lose top receiver Fred Ross and will need to find a go-to receiver as well as a premier running back. Defensively, Todd Grantham takes over as defensive coordinator, taking over a defense that finished No. 13 in scoring and No. 12 in total defense in the SEC last season.
11) Texas A&M Aggies
Nobody loses more key players on both sides of the ball than the Aggies. On offense, Kevin Sumlin must replace one-year fill-in quarterback Trevor Knight. Senior Jake Hubenak and five-star early enrollee Kellen Mond are the favorites to compete for the job. Wide receiver Christian Kirk is dynamic with the ball in his hands and the Aggies return talented running back Trayveon Williams, but they must replace the production of Jordan Reynolds, Ricky Seals-Jones and Speedy Noil. On defense, defensive coordinator John Chavis must replace Myles Garrett, Daeshon Hall and Justin Evans. The Aggies return Armani Watts in the secondary, while seniors Qualen Cunningham and Jarrett Johnson attempt to fill Garrett and Hall’s shoes along the defensive line.
12) South Carolina Gamecocks
Will Muschamp’s first year in Columbia was undoubtedly a success. The Gamecocks have a trio of young playmakers on offense: Jake Bentley at quarterback, Rico Dowdle at running back and Bryan Edwards at wide receiver. Add in tight end Hayden Hurst and wide receiver Deebo Samuel, and South Carolina has a nice offensive attack. The problem lies along the offensive line, a group that was among the worst in the SEC a season ago. On the defensive side of the ball, the Gamecocks lack playmakers at each level. As a defensive-minded coach, Muschamp can change and improve the defense as he brings his players into Columbia.
13) Missouri Tigers
The Tigers’ defense was one of the worst in the SEC last season, allowing 31.5 points per game. It’s difficult to envision a ton of progress on defense as head coach Barry Odom is just beginning to bring his own guys in. However, Terry Beckner Jr. returns along the line and can be one of the best in the SEC at defensive tackle. On offense, Drew Lock returns as one of the best quarterbacks in the SEC. Lock pairs up with receiver J’Mon Moore to form one of the best connections in the league. In the backfield, Damarea Crockett returns after rushing for 1,062 yards, the most by a freshman in the SEC.
14) Ole Miss Rebels
The cloud of possible NCAA sanctions continues to hang over Ole Miss following their self-imposed bowl ban. While things are murky off the field, the sun isn’t shining too bright on the field either. The Rebels’ defense was also among the worst in the conference last season allowing 461.3 yards per game and 34.0 points per game. Trying to flip the script, head coach Hugh Freeze brought in Wesley McGriff to be the new defensive coordinator. Freeze also brought in Phil Longo to be the Rebels’ new offensive coordinator. Questions surround much of the offense, but Ole Miss returns sophomore quarterback Shea Patterson. In three games last season, Patterson threw for 880 yards and six touchdowns after taking over for an injured Chad Kelly.
Edited by Quinn Pilkey
Featured image by Sumner Gillam